When Stamp was eight months old and I started training him for agility competition, I had no idea what to expect. Although I've trained dogs almost my entire life, I had never before competed in agility, and he was my first Norfolk. We had a rocky start. I took him to a drop-in agility class and found out of control dogs, different instructors every week, and absolutely no continuity. During those first few weeks I did a lot of research on the internet, subscribed to Clean Run magazine, bought some books on agility training and videotapes of the last three years of Agility World Championships. Watching the tapes and reading the books and magazine gave me a completely different view of agility from what I had seen at the local club. I decided to train alone until I could find a better trainer.
Having seen what dogs at the top of competition looked like, I decided not to go to any agility trials or matches so that my mind's eye would hold onto the ideal performance. The next year was an adventure and a discovery. I rented ring time at a local facility and started introducing Stamp to agility. He already was thoroughly versed in bridge and target training, a form of training that is somewhat similar to clicker training but with more nuance; more information can be found at http://www.synalia.com.
He was most definitely not a bold dog, and agility equipment gave him plenty to worry about. We struggled through his fear of heights, not great for A-Frames and Dog Walks, and his nervousness about the floor falling out from under him, which didn't help his Teeter performance. Little by little he mastered the equipment, hampered, I'm sure, by my lack of knowledge. I knew I needed to find an instructor, but my early experience made me gun shy. I decided to go to agility camp. Camp seemed to be the perfect opportunity to observe the best instructors from all over the country. I hoped to find one I felt comfortable with and was willing to make the commitment to train with that person regardless of how far I had to travel. I figured that it was better to invest in travel and two or three private lessons a year in California (if that was how far I needed to go) than to pay for weekly lessons nearby that weren't teaching me anything.
Camp was amazing. I had the opportunity to spend four days watching trainers who were really the top of the game. Among these world team members and national championship winners I felt completely out of my league, but I learned a huge amount. I also found two instructors who I thought I might do well with. Both of them had a very clear way of explaining things and were world team members. One of them, Elicia Calhoun, lived a little over an hour from me. I asked around about her and found out that she only taught advanced level students. Oh ... Nevertheless, I gathered my courage and asked her about the possibility of joining her class. She graciously agreed to watch Stamp run and see if he was ready for an advanced class. I was a nervous wreck and Stamp looked a mess to me, but she must have seen some potential because she accepted us as students.
I was terrified the first time I went to her class. Silly, perhaps, but I knew that Stamp was the only dog in class who did not have any agility titles, and that the other dogs were already in Open or Excellent.
The first eight weeks were tough. I knew next to nothing about handling, and Stamp, being the smallest dog in class by quite a bit, seemed to drive all the other dogs crazy. We improved gradually; he started out cantering deliberately through courses, but learned to pick up speed, and by the end of the second eight-week session we were promoted to her highest class level. I still had not competed, nor had I ever attended an agility trial, but at least I was starting to feel like I knew what I was doing. Being at the bottom of the totem pole, so to speak, was an excellent experience. Surrounded by advanced dogs, I set my sights high. The members of my class were serious; I was one of only two class members who did not compete at the National Championships that year. For my `stupid' questions, I turned to the members of the Noragility e-mail list. They were endlessly helpful, answering all my novice questions patiently and repeatedly, and encouraging me when I felt lost. I entered an agility match and Stamp managed fine, so I took the plunge and entered him in an actual trial. I still had never been to one and had no idea what to expect.
|Ch. Flashback Postmark, AX, AXJ (Ch. Aberschan's Gilbert And x Sage's Golden
Bred by Prudence Read and owned by Francoise and Celine Jouris.
The Montgomery Terrier Agility Cluster seemed like the perfect place to start, and it was. Our first day was a disaster. Stamp got excused from the ring for peeing on the chute in Novice Standard (I later found out that it was the dog before him who had done the deed) and in Jumpers his weave pole performance was so slow that I asked the judge to excuse us. Fortunately, things went up from there and he ended up with two Novice Standard legs and one Jumpers leg. We were on our way. I entered him in another weekend of trials six weeks later, and he finished up his novice titles.
About that time Stamp and I were invited to come practice on a regular basis with a group of people who were preparing for the World Team tryouts. Elicia thought he had potential so we gave it a shot. We had entered a new world. Agility, for most people, is a fun way to spend time with their dog, get exercise, and earn titles. At its top-level agility is a game of numbers and careful calculation. Everything is measured and timed. Every month he was videotaped and his obstacle performance times were measured, improvements were counted to the hundredth of a second. Each obstacle was analyzed. Stamp paused at the top of the dogwalk, a loss of about a tenth of a second. We worked on that until he smoothly covered the entire obstacle. His sit on the table was slow, another fraction of a second, another thing to work on. Those were, believe it or not, the obvious things. Much less obvious were the fractions of seconds lost because of inefficient handling. Not poor handling, just handling that wasn't absolutely perfect. We practiced jumping exercises until I knew exactly how many strides he needed to go from point A to point B. He learned to collect and extend stride immediately on signal, as well as to switch leads fast when needed. We videotaped, timed, measured, tried again. It's not for everyone, but Stamp and I have found out we thrive on it.
After finishing his novice titles, I pulled Stamp out of trials for six months while we learned to be better, smoother, faster. After a six month hiatus Stamp hit the agility ring again and quickly earned the next four titles (OA, OAJ, AX and AXJ) with all but two legs earned with first place ribbons. Sounds impressive, but anyone who's been to an agility trial can tell you that there are generally very few entries in the 8" jump height classes, so it's not as amazing as it seems.
It was time to see how he compared when competing against the best of his height. He had made it to Excellent B, the highest competition class. I entered him in the Springfield trial cluster in November. Because that trial is also a qualifier trial for the World Team tryouts, the top dogs from this half of the country are entered. Instead of the usual three or four dogs in his class there would be between fifteen and twenty. I also entered him in the World Team qualifier.
I would love to say that Stamp wowed the agility world with his amazing ability, but life is never that simple. Stamp did more than fine, over a three day period, entered in a total of six classes, he earned five legs, with four third places and one second place in very tough competition. If the total scores of those three days were counted he would have beaten all the other dogs in his class, because no other dog came near his qualifying rate. However, his average time was three to five seconds behind the dogs that beat him, a pretty large amount of time to catch up. His performance in the World Team Qualifier gathered a lot of compliments, he was the only 8" dog to even try out, but he placed right in the middle of the class, time wise, and I knew he was giving it his all. All the other members of the group we had practiced with placed in their classes, with two of the three first place winners coming from among his classmates.
I realized then that he really did not have a chance at that level of competition. Asking a dog of his size and structure to run an agility course with 14" jumps was a lot, asking him to do that at world class speeds was impossible. That's not to say that no Norfolk will ever make it, but he's not going to be the one. We've set our sights on the Nationals now. I now can measure exactly how many paces back he needs to start on a given course to reach maximum speed when he crosses the start line, and I can push him to turn on a dime with almost no loss of speed. It's hard work, but we feel we can catch up some of those five seconds that separate us from the top echelons.
Stamp lives the life of an athlete. He has chiropractic adjustments, therapeutic swimming, an intense exercise regime. I check his weight once a month, his homemade diet is tweaked all the time to reflect the type of work he's doing and the amount of calories he's burning. Of course he doesn't know it's all work.
The most important part of a successful training program is making sure that the dog half of the partnership is having a great time. We spend most of our time playing together, playing hard, because a dog who can play really well, tugging, chasing, barking leaping for joy, will have the drive he needs to run fast and clean. We're not expecting to win the Nationals, not at this point anyhow; we just want to show up and feel that we're able to hold our own against the best.
ANTIC, June, 2004
Editor's Note: The National Agility Championships will be held in January 2005 in Tampa, FL in conjunction with the AKC's National Dog Show.
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